Musings
March 11, 2022

The Skills to Operate Your Business Aren't What You Think They Are

You wouldn’t ask an employee to operate a machine - let alone a complex machine critical to your business - without the necessary skills and resources.

You’d enable them first with safety skills, operating instructions and troubleshooting guidance. You’d provide hours of training and practice, and a set of resources to turn to in case of trouble.

You’d be horrified if they disregarded the experience of more seasoned operators or ignored a suspicious rumble without stopping the machine to investigate the problem.

But you ask employees to “operate” your culture all the time - without guidance, skills or practice.

Every time they take a “hammer'' to a delicate issue or ignore the rumble of a colleague’s misgiving, they risk irreparable damage to the organization’s ability to function, much less to grow.

Culture operates the "machine" that makes all the other machines work because it’s the system that engages all your colleagues to work together - or not. It's the firmware that enables your organizational processes to function.

It doesn’t matter whether you have a collaborative culture, an innovative culture or a hard-edged execution culture. The skills your colleagues use to engage with each other - their relational skills -  are critical to the viability and sustainability of the culture that drives your business.

What are relational skills?

  1. Listening with humility. So many times we listen only to wait our turn to speak. But listening well enhances the capacity for innovation.
  2. Asking good questions. Not “gotcha” or test questions, but curious questions with an authentic interest in learning. Asking good questions unleashes new ideas by surfacing hidden insights.
  3. Suspending known truths to engage with the perspectives of others. We become entrenched when we see the world only through the things we already know. By challenging our assumptions, we open the possibilities to learn from each other and to reframe our mental models.
  4. Debating or disagreeing with respect and without retribution. In the healthiest and most productive organizations, people feel empowered to speak up and safe to experiment and fail. This cannot happen without psychological safety, grounded in trust and mutual regard.
  5. Widening the circle of empathy. Science confirms that despite best intentions, we are most empathetic with people we already know or who look and feel like us. By deepening our relationships at work, we widen the circle of empathy and naturally expand inclusion and belonging.

These relational skills enhance a group’s ability to collaborate, innovate and be productive. They aren’t warm and fuzzy feelings. They are specific collective skills grounded in learning and reinforced in practice.  

And they can’t be learned alone.

In his famous annual letter to CEOs, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink asked a set of important questions:

“What are you doing to deepen the bond with your employees? How are you ensuring that employees of all backgrounds feel safe enough to maximize their creativity, innovation and productivity? Where and how we work will never be the same as it was. How is your company’s culture adapting to this new world?”

An adaptive culture is a culture that empowers colleagues to learn, grow, and create value together.  By harnessing collective skills, you are strengthening the culture (updating the firmware) of your organization, readying the business and your colleagues to not only adapt to change but to tackle it head on.  

Can you afford not to invest in these skills?  

Image Credit:
D. Napier & Son Ltd, 'Aero Engine in the Making', England, circa 1918, via Museums Victoria, on Unsplash

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